“Your people…are the shoot that I planted, the work of my hands, so that I may be glorified.” (Isa. 60:21)
“They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” (Ps. 1:3a)
The woman in my office was interviewing for the position of office administrator. When I asked, “Why do you want to work at Trinity Church?” she replied, “I think it would be great to work in a church environment. It would help heal my faith—it would nurture my soul.” Her response made me nervous at best. When people aspire to work for the church primarily as a means to find spiritual nurture and healing, they are often disillusioned. What they are likely to find is a community of sinners striving, sometimes failing, to live as the people of God.
In my 20 years of pastoral ministry, I have experienced congregations full of faith, love, and vitality—refreshing gardens for the pastor’s soul. I have also experienced congregations full of pain and bitterness—dry deserts where my soul has languished and withered. And these two distinct experiences occurred within the same church.
Is the congregation a good place for the pastor’s soul? First, it is clear from Scripture that Christian community is vital for every Christian soul, whether pastor or parishioner. From Genesis to Revelation, God calls us into community: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5a). “Now, you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet. 2:10a). Even our God, in whose image we were created, is a communal, triune God. We are called to community.
The Garden and the Desert
Pastors sometimes experience that congregational community with such fullness that their souls will never again be the same. In my first congregation, my husband was hospitalized for several weeks following surgery for a life-threatening cerebral aneurysm. I continue to stand in awe at the congregation’s response—the intensity of their love and support. Meals appeared at our door, our children were embraced by members who filled their days and hearts with love, a work crew came to paint our house, and a devoted prayer group met every morning and kept vigil throughout the day. I felt as though I were back with the first Christians in the book of Acts. To this day, my soul is nurtured by that experience.
On the other hand, I have been in the midst of painful congregational conflicts where anxiety was expressed in all sorts of creative and hurtful ways. Angry members have blasted me for my pastoral work—as well as for my style of parenting, my choice of clothing, and the make of my car. Such desolate times have led me to lament, “How long, O Lord?” Indeed, what pastor has not joined with Moses in uttering her own version of these words: “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry this people alone, for they are too heavy for me” (Num. 11:11-14).
Like Moses, the pastor experiences congregational life from his or her calling as leader. And since the time of Moses, the call to lead God’s people has been experienced as both blessing and burden—both refreshing garden and parched wilderness, and every typography in between.
Further, many scholars point out that today’s church finds itself in a situation not unlike Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Loren Mead has argued that the church faces a “storm so serious that it marks the end of ‘business as usual’ for the churches.”1 And this change in the church is parallel with changes in leadership: “An entire leadership ecology is shifting around and within us—making it very difficult to know who the leaders are, what leadership is, or what leaders should do.”2 Thus, in addition to the blessings, burdens, and changes of congregational life, we also face enormous changes in our roles as leaders. How can our souls be nurtured in such an environment?
Nurturing Our Spiritual Health
First, I believe that, in season and out of season, our souls are nurtured by faithful participation in weekly worship—and by a spirit of openness and trust that God’s gifts await us there. Whether we currently experience congregational life as a garden or a desert, God promises to meet us as the congregation gathers for worship, refreshing us with the life-giving gifts of Word and Sacrament.
Further, I have learned during my ministry, and other pastors have confirmed, that we must attend to our spiritual health by means distinct from the congregation. Specifically, I believe taht pastors need to intentionally nurture another spiritual community apart from the congregation. That community may be as small as two people—a spiritual director, a trusted friend in faith, another pastor. It may be a 12-step group, a prayer fellowship, or a lectio divina ministry.
To have an intentional relationship with a spiritual director, whether called by that name or another, is to be blessed with amazing gifts of refreshment. Clearly, that has been my experience. When I visit my spiritual director, a Catholic lay minister, she consistently asks if I might like to say the closing prayer, and I consistently say no. Then, when she begins to pray for me, I consistently start to cry. I am so moved by the gift of another prayer aloud for me. Yet, this same spiritual director also challenges me to grow in the practices of faith—prayer, Bible reading, worship, and Sabbath keeping. She calls me to those practices that help me attend daily to the work of God’s spirit in the world, in the congregation, and in my life.
A spiritual director helps provide wisdom in the journey of discernment. If we are indeed facing a time of unprecedented cultural change, affecting both the congregation and its leaders, then the need for spiritual guidance is stronger than ever. The conversation between God’s Word and the changing words of our culture rarely leads to “quick fixes and easy solutions.”
The process of discernment is more akin to what Ronald Heifetz refers to as a “‘holding environment’ for containing the stresses of adaptive change.”3 A spiritual mentor can provide guidance and wisdom as we discern our call as parish pastors. Not every congregation is a good fit, a good garden for a pastor. Not every pastor is called to serve in congregational ministry. And not every Christian is called to be a pastor. It takes a community distinct from the congregation to help discern these things.
Yes, the congregation can be like a refreshing garden for the pastor or like a parched wilderness. It is critical, then, that pastors not become so enmeshed with the congregation that we lose sight of ourselves as children of God. As Christians and as pastors, our first calling is to love God with all our heart and soul, mind and strength. If we are to remain “self-differentiated, self-defined yet in touch with others,”4 we must be very intentional about attending to our relationship with God.
As I write this, the first snow has falled in northern Minnesota. Now, the only way my geraniums will continue to flourish is if I take them out of the garden, bring them inside, and place them on a window in the sun. Perhaps that is how we must recognize our lives as parish pastors. The congregation can be a well-watered garden where the souls of God’s people are given a chance to blossom and bear fruit. However, the pastor also needs time away from that garden, in prayer and meditation, in conversation with a spiritual director or friend. We need time on the shelf by the window, that place God can replensih our souls in our first calling, as beloved children of God.
1. Transforming Congregations for the Future (Bethesda, Md.: The Alban Institute, 1994), p. ix.
2. James P. Wind, “New Perspectives on Leadership,” Lutheran Partners, November/December 1996, p. 16.
3. Gilbert Rendle, Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders (Bethesda, Md.: The Alban Institute, 1998), p. 28.
4. Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach (Bethesda, Md.: The Alban Institute, 1996) p. 96-98.